Bias in Education, Part 1

In this and the posts that follow, I fully expect that there will be many — including fellow Christians and even those from within my own church family — who will disagree with me. I’ll be addressing some touchy subjects pertaining to education, and eventually fleshing out a bit of my own personal philosophy of education. I invite your participation in this discussion, and welcome all comments, whether agreeable or not.

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Within the last few weeks, there have been at least two stories of counseling students threatened with expulsion from their respective colleges due to their stance on homosexuality. A federal judge recently upheld the decision of Eastern Michigan University to expel a student who refused to counsel homosexual clients on account of her belief that homosexuality is wrong (SOURCE). In a similar story, a graduate student at Augusta State University has been told that she must participate in a “remediation plan” that is intended to change her beliefs. She’s been told that she must stop telling people about Jesus, and that her views “interfere with her ability to provide competent counseling to gay men and lesbians” (SOURCE; more available HERE). Both students are being represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, in hopes that they may be allowed to finish their schooling without altering their beliefs.

The recent court decision certainly sets a precedent, and there are sure to be many more similar stories in the future. Many Christians are very upset by both of these stories. As believers unaccustomed to persecution, we have a tendency to get our hackles raised whenever we perceive a slight against our faith. We are quick to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters, fighting battles not only in the courts of law, but in the court of public opinion as well.

But mustn’t we ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions? What if the law really isn’t on “our” side? Were these schools justified in what they did?

Let me share with you a story from my own experience.

While I was in college, I majored in Music Therapy. I was attracted to that degree program by the appeal of being able to use my God-given musical talents to help people. Music therapists work in all kinds of settings: nursing homes, hospitals, schools, hospice, counseling, etc. I loved the idea of having so many options available to minister to hurting people through music.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag during my senior year. I had some run-ins with a professor who told me that my unwillingness to compromise on my religious convictions was in violation of the American Music Therapy Association’s Code of Ethics, with which I was required to comply as part of my degree program. In a “role-playing” group counseling session during class, I had told a “pretend” client (a fellow MT student) about Jesus. Her “role” was that of a dying woman dealing with end-of-life issues, and I did exactly what I would have done in that situation in real life.

After being called out in class, and again in the professor’s office, I still maintained that, because my Christian beliefs are so central to my life and my thinking, there was no way I could ever “turn it off” simply because an employer did not allow therapists to share their personal beliefs with clients. My proposed solution was to find a work environment in which I would be allowed to share my beliefs freely. There are several, and many Christian music therapists work in such environments, or are self-employed.

The professor, however, told me that this was not enough, and that he would have difficulty recommending me for a job (much less allowing me to pass the class) when I had explicitly stated that I would be absolutely unwilling to compromise under any circumstances. Though this was not the only reason, I eventually ended up dropping music therapy as a major, spending an additional two years completing a degree in “Interdisciplinary Studies”, which basically qualifies me to do nothing.

Could that professor have allowed me to graduate and go work in a location where my beliefs would not be a conflict? Sure. Many other MT majors with similarly strong convictions did exactly that. I harbored a lot of resentment for a very long time. Sometimes, I even felt self-righteous and proud of my “persecution”.

The thing is, the professor was exactly right, technically speaking. The AMTA Code of Ethics, section 2.3.2 states:

The MT refuses to participate in activities that… discriminate against individuals based upon race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. In addition, the MT works to eliminate the effect on his or her work of biases based upon these factors (Emphasis mine).

By essentially refusing to eliminate the effect of my admitted religious bias from my work, I was in violation of this code, just as the professor had said. Of course, one could argue (and I have) that our culture has divorced the word “discrimination” from its original meaning (“the act of making or observing a difference”), and that simply observing that someone has a different religion or sexual orientation from me would not hinder me from providing him with music therapy services. However, I could not in good conscience affirm gay marriage or deny that Jesus Christ is the only Way of salvation, and this, legally, qualifies as discrimination.

In retrospect, I could have saved myself years of frustration by actually reading the Code of Ethics before I signed my intention to comply with it. Had I done that, and wrestled with its implications, I might have realized that I had a choice. No one forced me to enter the music therapy program at a secular university. I could easily have majored in another field, and/or attended a university which shared my worldview. There are obviously other fields in which my particular gifts and desires are useful, such as vocational music ministry, which I am doing right now.

Did I have a right to be upset with my professor, who had an obligation (mandated by the AMTA’s Standards of Practice) to ensure that students under his supervision were in compliance with the Code of Ethics? As much as it humbles me to say it, I don’t believe that I did. I made a decision (ill-informed as it may have been) to subject myself to a standard in conflict with my convictions, and I paid the consequences.

Now, back to our two collegiate counseling students. I am not familiar with the details of the Code of Ethics for the American Counseling Association, or of the ethical requirements of the various universities involved, but I imagine that they are similarly worded. It was not just for these girls’ beliefs that they were threatened with expulsion, but for their failure to comply with certain requirements of their programs. Presumably, these requirements were stated or available prior to their enrollment in the programs (if not, they have every right to be upset), just as in my situation.

Christians can argue over things like this until we’re blue in the face, but at some point, we must accept the fact that if we choose to participate in the world’s systems, we must play by the world’s rules. As part of the world, and as part of this nation, we may certainly work within the confines of our legal system and our various institutions to bring about change to laws and codes of ethics so that they might conform to our own beliefs. Ultimately, though, we must acknowledge that we are free to make choices about our profession, and about our education. When faced with a choice between secular schools with a humanist agenda and Christian schools with a biblical worldview, we must be willing to face the consequences of our choice.

I made my choice. Those girls made theirs. I didn’t have to be a music therapist. They didn’t have to pursue secular counseling programs. I foolishly signed my name to something I was not willing to see through, and deserved what I got. If those girls did something similar, as EMU and ASU claim, then they really don’t have grounds to fight their schools on this, and Christians have no right to feel persecuted.

The end result of my story is that God used those circumstances to mold me and shape me, and to bring me to exactly the place where I am. It has truly worked out for my good! Still, I’ve been forced to think long and hard about the sometimes-hidden implications of the choices I make, and particularly about things to which I sign my name. I will never again associate myself with any organization or institution with an agenda at cross-purposes with my convictions.

As a husband and father, I must now also take responsibility for the associations which my family makes, and for the education my children will receive. Next time, we’ll look closer at the possible ramifications of those types of weighty decisions.

6 comments on “Bias in Education, Part 1

  1. Emily Williams says:

    John,

    I think you make a good point about us as Christians needing to abide by the rules of an institution to which we assign ourselves, or according to regulations which we sign our name to. It seems that this is a similar situation to our public grade schools, where teachers are not allowed to teach their religion, but should they be asked their personal opinions by the students they are allowed to state their personal beliefs.

    I don’t know any more specifics of your peronsal situation with the Music Therapy Code than what you have explained, but it seems to me this could be a situation where you could seek to practice music therapy according to the code without actively trying to persuade your clients of your beliefs. After a time of working with you clients, they would gain insight into your personal life and at that time could ask you questions, which you would legally be allowed to answer. I know you are not seeking “solutions” to your “problem”, I’m just offering another option that I see should someone ever be in a similar situation.

    As for the girls and the counseling program, my understanding of the situation is that they were told they could not HAVE their beliefs. You were told that you could not SHARE your beliefs. I see these as two different situations (althought admittedly they have a strong connection).

    I agree that if we allign ourselves with certain organizations or affiliations we need to abide by those standards. If we can’t because of our beliefs then we shouldn’t allign ourselves with them. However, no one is allowed to tell us we can’t HAVE our beliefs, and if an institution is not willing to grant degrees to people with certain beliefs this needs to be made clear from the beginning of a degree program.

    • John Gardner says:

      Absolutely, no one should be able to tell us we aren’t free to have certain beliefs. If that’s all that’s going on with those girls’ situation (and it very well may be, I haven’t studied any of the specifics), then they do have a case. And yes, there are legal outlets for music therapists to share their beliefs. There’s a difference between sharing something out of a relationship versus using your status as a therapist as a platform for evangelism. The first is legal, the second is not.

      Your last sentence hits the nail on the head. If an institution is up front about their expectations and requirements from the get go, I think we have to respect their authority to enforce their own requirements. If they aren’t open and honest from the beginning, then there’s a legitimate problem. It’s probably the difference between a court case won or lost.

  2. Stephen says:

    http://www.txca.org/Images/tca/Documents/ACA%20Code%20of%20Ethics.pdf

    Perhaps there should be some kind of entrance counseling provided before students enroll in such programs.

    • John Gardner says:

      Interestingly enough, one of the things that is recommended (but not required) of all MT students is that they are receiving counseling/therapy themselves while they are in the program.

  3. As I started to read your blog, I suffered from an expression I just heard last night. You had “my brain so tied up in knots that I couldn’t think.” As I kept reading, you effectively loosened the knot. A well thought-out and articulate piece. As a teacher who did more counseling than teaching, keeping my beliefs out of the situation and not letting my judgement to be clouded by beiefs opposed to mine were my primary goals. Believe it or not, there’s not one student/teacher who knew what I really believed. They did know I believed. We have to do what works for us. Thank you for sharing another inciteful piece of writing.

  4. Tamara says:

    John, thank you for such a thoughtful post. As a member of the American Counseling Association and as someone who is sensitive to the concerns of all students, I have followed these cases with close attention. The rulings were not related to the students’ beliefs. Instead, they were based on the schools’ commitment to ACA Ethics and the students’ inability / unwillingness to comply with specific behaviors.

    I do understand that beliefs inform behaviors but, like you, believe that the schools were within their rights and obligations to adhere to the code of ethics that they had agreed to follow.

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